File with updates posted May 2016
Little Artie Shawcross bullied classmates, insulted teachers, started fires, tortured animals, and roved the woods of New York’s hardscrabble North Country with imaginary friends, talking in a high squawk. He also scored top grades, excelled in sports and shared his money and toys with the children who ridiculed him. From the second grade on, he was subjected to psychiatric examination, regularly confounding the experts. Years later, while serving in Vietnam, Arthur John Shawcross wrote bloodcurdling letters about his battlefield ordeals, then returned to Watertown to commit a string of arsons and burglaries. He served two years in prison, was paroled to his respectable parents – and murdered a boy and a girl. Back in the penitentiary, he proved as enigmatic as ever. Some counselors saw him as a Frankenstein monster, beyond hope, irredeemable. To others he was a troubled young man who could be saved. No two psychiatrists seemed to agree. Shawcross served fifteen years, then conned a parole board into an early release. He settled in Binghamton, but angry citizens learned of his bloody history and ran him out of town. After two smaller communities turned him away, desperate parole authorities finally smuggled the child-killer into Rochester in the dead of night – neglecting to alert the local police. Soon the corpses started turning up, locked in winter ice, covered by reeds in swamps, floating in streams. The homicidal pedophile had changed his M.O., this time murdering diminutive women. As the body count grew, Rochester streets swarmed with police, and still the serial killer managed to snare his tenth victim, then his eleventh.
Accounts of more famous serial killers like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer may have ghoulish entertainment value, but I agree with writer Darcy O’Brien that this meticulously factual study of child sex-murderer Arthur Shawcross “comes closer to capturing the psychology of a serial killer than anything else I’ve ever read.” The strength of this book (semi-finalist for a 1994 Edgar Award) comes first from the quality of the materials–including first-person interviews with the killer’s wives, girlfriends, co-workers, police officers, therapists, and even a prostitute who “played dead” for Shawcross–and second, from Olsen’s ability to weave the information into a highly readable story that reveals, above all, the ineffectiveness of our system of rehabilitation and parole.
From Publishers Weekly
An experienced and skilled writer, Olsen ( Predator ) proves himself equal to the formidable task of studying serial killer Arthur Shawcross. Born in 1945 in upstate New York, Shawcross was perceived as different even in childhood (his classmates dubbed him “Oddie,” and elementary school officials called for mental health evaluations). In the early ’70s he murdered two children and was sentenced to up to 25 years in prison; he served less than 15 years before he was paroled in 1987. He was difficult to place–townspeople drove him out as soon as his past became known. After three such episodes, parole officials sent him surreptitiously to Rochester, N.Y., where he killed at least 11 prostitutes. He was arrested in 1990 and eventually sentenced to 250 years in prison. During the trial, he claimed that he had been physically and sexually abused by his mother (untrue, the authorities concluded) and that he had committed horrible atrocities in Vietnam (probably untrue). He did not fit the classic pattern of the sociopath, nor did he seem either schizophrenic or paranoid. It remained for psychiatrist Richard Kraus to hypothesize that physiology was the basis for Shawcross’s behavior–he diagnosed Shawcross as suffering from a metabolic ailment known as pyroluria and an abnormal genetic constitution. Told by Olsen with contributions from others affected by Shawcross’s crimes, the story is a triumph of true-crime writing.